X

Atlanta’s interim police chief came out of retirement and might stay

07/07/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Atlanta Police Department Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant speaks during a presser at the Atlanta Police Department headquarters in Atlanta, Tuesday, July 7, 2020. There is a $20,000 reward for information leading to identifying and finding four men that APD believes are people of interest in the killing of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner. Secoriea was shot and killed while riding with her family along University Avenue, near the Wendy's where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an APD officer.(ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
07/07/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Atlanta Police Department Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant speaks during a presser at the Atlanta Police Department headquarters in Atlanta, Tuesday, July 7, 2020. There is a $20,000 reward for information leading to identifying and finding four men that APD believes are people of interest in the killing of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner. Secoriea was shot and killed while riding with her family along University Avenue, near the Wendy's where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an APD officer.(ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Rodney Bryant said he was perfectly content in retirement. After 31 years with the Atlanta Police Department, he’d earned it.

“This wasn’t about me missing the job,” said Bryant, who six weeks ago was named interim Atlanta police chief. “It certainly wasn’t something I planned for.”

Bryant was installed June 13, hours after Chief Erika Shields submitted her resignation. The night before, Garrett Rolfe, a white police officer since fired and now facing charges, had fatally shot Rayshard Brooks, a Black man. Brooks was shot after scuffling with Rolfe and another officer who’d responded to a call at the University Avenue Wendy’s. The restaurant was torched and later demolished after a child was fatally shot near the site.

Bryant said he returned to the force out of a sense of duty.

“When your team needs you, you come,” the affable grandfather said.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said during a recent virtual editorial board meeting with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she is open to removing the interim tag from Bryant’s title. Over the next several months he’ll essentially audition for a job he never sought, at a time when APD is at a crossroads.

Many in the department, including Bryant, say morale has never been lower. Bryant said he doesn’t think it’s necessarily “an APD thing.”

“I’ve never seen the hostility directed at police like we’re seeing now,” he said.

He was speaking of civilians, not city administrators. But even the mayor acknowledges she faces distrust from officers.

“What I’ve heard APD say is they feel abandoned by their leaders, including myself,” she said. “I disagree with that but can’t argue with how they feel.”

Atlanta Police Union President Jason Segura said that, in just the last month, 65 officers have filed paperwork for early retirement. Bryant disputes that figure but acknowledges the numbers of officers leaving are much higher than the norm. The AJC has not yet been able to independently confirm the total.

“There’s going be more than that, I guarantee you,” said departing APD Detective Ty Dennis, whose last day is Aug. 10. The widely respected 16-year veteran, who works in the gangs unit, was, along with partner Lakea Gaither, named Investigator of the Year in 2015.

Dennis, who’s returning to his hometown of St. Louis to work as a district safety officer for for a suburban school system, said he knows of other officers planning exits.

“Everyone’s exploring their options,” he said. “They make us feel like we’re all replaceable. Okay, we’ll see.”

Dennis said he never considered looking for another job until recently. Department turmoil started last month after six officers involved in an aggressive arrest and tasing of two unarmed college students, guilty of violating curfew during the first week of protests against police brutality, were indicted by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. Rolfe being charged with felony murder and other charges after Brooks’ shooting and Shields’ departure left Dennis with little choice, he said.

“I loved Chief Shields,” said Dennis, founder of the “Clippers and Cops” program where officers meet with residents at local barbershops for trims and talks about community issues. “She’d pass along little thank you notes all the time just to let you know you were appreciated. If she asked me to come back to work for her I’d have to to consider it.”

Then-Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields huddles with officers on Briarcliff Road in Atlanta as protesters marched through Virginia Highlands past curfew on June 5. BEN GRAY FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION
Then-Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields huddles with officers on Briarcliff Road in Atlanta as protesters marched through Virginia Highlands past curfew on June 5. BEN GRAY FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION

Bottoms said she never sought to replace Shields, though Dennis shares a widespread belief among the rank and file that the former chief was forced out.

“Chief Shields offered her resignation and I accepted her resignation. Period,” Bottoms said.

She and Bryant became acquainted when she was a councilwoman representing southwest Atlanta when Bryant was working as a zone commander. Former City Council member Derrick Boazman noted that other mayors have made appointments to the police department’s top spot over the years.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin brought in Richard Pennington soon after she took office in 2002. And when Kasim Reed succeeded her in 2010, George Turner replaced Pennington. Shields was promoted to chief near the end of Reed’s tenure, in December 2016.

Bryant’s a fine choice for the time being, Boazman said.

“I think Rodney will be an excellent placeholder,” Boazman said. “He’ll bring some much-needed stability to the department.”

But he added, “I’ll be disappointed if there is no national search.”

Bottoms said she expected to begin that search immediately but, with so many municipalities looking for new chiefs, she’s decided to wait until the field is less crowded.

It’s unclear how Bryant, facing a multitude of challenges, will be judged.

Crime has risen significantly since he took over. As of July 18, shootings were up 23 percent while murders have increased 31 percent from this time in 2019. In a 28-day period starting toward the end of June, 21 murders were reported compared to seven over that same time span last year.

The death of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner, shot while in the back seat of her mother’s SUV by armed young men who police say had commandeered a portion of University Avenue, was particularly jarring. Investigators say they suspect multiple gunmen were involved but so far have made just one arrest despite a $50,000 reward. Julian Conley, 19, has admitted being there but insists he did not fire a weapon at Secoriea. He was denied bond on Tuesday.

Bryant will also be asked to shepherd a series of reforms promised by the mayor.

“All you can do is handle these things one at a time,” Bryant said. “You can’t let things overwhelm you.”

July 6, 2020 Atlanta: Interim Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant (left)  listens to a woman who identified herself as Lady A where Atlanta police and sanitation crews finished removing protesters and their belongings from outside the Wendy's on Monday, July 6, 2020, where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an officer last month. The cleanup followed a violent holiday weekend that started Saturday night when 8-year-old Secoriea Turner was fatally shot while sitting in a car near the restaurant.  JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
July 6, 2020 Atlanta: Interim Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant (left) listens to a woman who identified herself as Lady A where Atlanta police and sanitation crews finished removing protesters and their belongings from outside the Wendy's on Monday, July 6, 2020, where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an officer last month. The cleanup followed a violent holiday weekend that started Saturday night when 8-year-old Secoriea Turner was fatally shot while sitting in a car near the restaurant. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

An example: out-of-control street parties that brought the Sweet Auburn district, including the bars and restaurants along Edgewood Avenue, to a halt. They’ve been a nuisance for six years but, since July 4, police have maintained a thick presence in the neighborhood, forcing the revelers elsewhere.

“They actually seem to be listening to us now,” said Ryan Buchanan, general manager of Noni’s on Edgewood.

Bryant joined APD as a peace officer in 1988, just out of high school. He would later receive his bachelor’s degree from Georgia State University in criminal justice and a master’s in administration from Central Michigan University. That set him up on an executive track, and Bryant advanced all the way to assistant chief in 2017.

He said he believes he has the proper temperament and experience to handle the chief’s job. The Atlanta native said he feels a responsibility to the city and its police department that’s given him so much

“We will not fail this city,” he told the city council soon after his appointment. “Officers are tired and rightfully so and stressed. But the majority of us will continue to stand as guardians of this city and make sure every citizen is safe.”

But some aren’t sure he’s the right fit.

Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant speaks at a press conference at the Atlanta Police Headquarters June 20, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant speaks at a press conference at the Atlanta Police Headquarters June 20, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Former APD cop Ken Allen said Bryant’s close ties to Bottoms leaves many officers questioning his independence.

Allen pointed to a pair of traffic stops in 2011 involving former Mayor Kasim Reed’s older brother. Bryant was suspended 15 days without pay for providing preferential treatment after he was found to have intervened on Tracy Reed’s behalf. The first time, Reed was pulled over driving someone else’s car with tags for another vehicle. Reed said he didn’t have his license on him, but when the officer ran a search he found his license had been suspended five years earlier for failing to appear in court. The officer was prepared to take Reed into custody before Bryant got involved.

Reed still hadn’t taken care of the license issue when he was stopped five months later for driving with an expired tag. A bench warrant had been issued for Tracy Reed three weeks earlier for missing his court date. Still, after Bryant’s intervention, he was allowed to drive off with no license and an expired tag.

“He’s seen as someone who’s going to take the politicians’ sides,” Allen said.

Attorney Dan Grossman. Photo: dangrossmanlaw.com
Attorney Dan Grossman. Photo: dangrossmanlaw.com

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Credit: Jennifer Brett

Attorney Dan Grossman, who won a landmark settlement with the city over its illegal 2009 raid of The Eagle, a Midtown gay bar, said Bryant seems miscast as a change agent.

“There is very little in his background to suggest he’s the person you’d select if your goal is to reform the police department,” said Grossman, a longtime watchdog of APD practices. As part of the Eagle settlement, the department agreed to changes in how it trains officers.

Boazman said APD needs an outsider, “someone to shake things up.”

“I don’t see anyone inside the department who can take over,” he said.

Dennis said he’s rooting for Bryant but believes he’s in a no-win situation.

The new chief “is a smart guy,” he said. “But I think he’s caught a raw deal here.”

“It’s going to take at least five or six years to fix what’s broken there,” he said. “I doubt he’ll be given the time to come up with a plan to turn things around.”

But Bottoms said she thinks Bryant may well be the right chief at the right time.

“I’m confident with the right support he can lead APD,” the mayor said.